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The family of a man who died while Albuquerque police were taking him into custody earlier this year has filed a lawsuit alleging the officers used excessive force and were ill trained to deal with people with mental illness.
Danny White, 43, died of sudden cardiac arrest April 4 as two officers held him down on his stomach, according to a report issued in October by the Office of the Medical Investigator.
The report identified White’s death as a homicide, with Huntington’s disease, obesity and hypertensive cardiovascular disease listed as contributing conditions.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court of New Mexico, names as defendants the Albuquerque Police Department, the City of Albuquerque and two APD officers. Other defendants are two unidentified city employees – a 911 dispatcher and a police supervisor.
APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said in a written response Friday that the city will respond in court to the lawsuit.
“As far as the officers (are concerned), I believe one officer had a policy violation and was educated on the violation,” Gallegos said.
No other APD personnel were disciplined and no criminal charges have been filed in connection with White’s death, he said.
“The homicide determination from OMI is a medical ruling, and not a definition used in the criminal justice system,” Gallegos said.
The lawsuit alleges that a 911 call initiated a series of missteps that led to White’s death. They include:
• White’s sister called 911 and specifically requested a Crisis Intervention Unit officer who was familiar with White and had dealt successfully with him in the past. The sister repeatedly told the 911 operator that White had no weapons and had not injured anyone, but required mental health treatment at a hospital.
• Instead of dispatching a CIU officer, the 911 operator issued a standard call for response to a “battery against a household member.”
• About an hour elapsed between the 911 call and the time officers arrived at the house White shared with family members in the 3100 block of Ronda De Lechusas NW, near Unser and Bob McCannon.
“Consequently, the episode that had precipitated the call was long over by the time officers arrived,” the suit said. “In this non-emergency moment, the family was seeking assistance in managing Danny’s mental episode to get him calmly into the hands of medical professionals.”
Family members tried to explain to the officers that White had Huntington’s disease – a genetic disorder that causes a breakdown of nerve cells in the brain, sometimes causing aggressive behavior.
One of the officers responded, “I’m not familiar with that one,” and “incorrectly” said he couldn’t transport White to a hospital unless White agreed, the suit said.
“The officer proceeded to enter Danny’s bedroom, where he was watching his favorite movie, disturbing no one and threatening no one,” the suit alleges.
The officers should have called in a Crisis Intervention Unit, but instead “escalated their encounter,” pinning White to the floor and placing him in handcuffs, resulting in White’s death, it said.
The suit alleges the city and APD were negligent in hiring, training and supervising the two APD officers and the 911 dispatcher involved in the response. It seeks unspecified damages.